J P Floru is a Westminster councillor and Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute. Follow J P on Twitter.
There is no excuse for Conservative councils not to cut their council tax. Contrary to the laments about savage cuts, the size of government in this country actually grew last year. Public spending increased from 48 to 49% of GDP. The growth of Big Brother has been relentless: 14% in 1900; 37% in 1997; and today out of every £ spent, 49p is spent by the state. Local government spends about one third of that total. Complaints from local government associations that they should not have to save so much are nothing less than irresponsible. Nationally the Conservatives do not have a majority. But in many local councils we do. If we do not tackle the government obesity crisis at local level, who will? Why are so many other Conservative councils so un-Conservative? Profligate government is sadly not exclusively the socialists’ remit.
This week the City of Westminster set the lowest council tax in the country. For the sixth time Westminster's 48 Conservative councillors (Labour 12) froze the council tax. Flagship council Wandsworth used to be the lowest, but is increasing its council tax above Westminster this year. With inflation, this means a real terms cut of about 23% over six years. Every Conservative council could and should do the same. But few do. Some courageous Conservative councils are actually cutting the council tax, but start from a much higher base level. In 2013/14 Band D properties in Westminster will be taxed at £377.74.
When the population is struggling it is unacceptable for government to increase the tax burden. With rising costs and decreasing revenue, how does Westminster manage to bring the Conservative value of “living within one’s means” into practice? Two basic principles achieve this. First of all: we do what we promised – politics is not a morality-free zone. Unlike the Labour Party, which in 1997 promised not to increase taxes and then did so by stealth 157 times, Westminster delivers clean and safe streets and low taxes. In view of its central location, with 30 million visitors a year who use the public realm but pay no council tax to maintain it, this is a remarkable feat.
Secondly, we focus on essentials. All politicians have their pet spending priorities, but if all those were ring-fenced, we could not live within our means. So hard choices have to be made. How to decide what to focus one? Politicians are servants and not masters: we take our cue from the people.
Take, for example, the arts. Within two years Westminster is going to abolish its direct funding of the arts completely. I used to run an arts business. When the crisis of 2007 struck, people stopped buying art, and I terminated my business. It taught me that art is a luxury product. When people are strapped for cash, they don’t spend on luxuries. Neither will Westminster.
Two weeks ago I witnessed the spectacle of Westminster’s socialist opposition Leader Paul Dimoldenberg addressing the Cabinet Meeting exclusively to plead not to cut spending on the arts (0.1% of the total council budget). This has a distinct “let them eat cake” whiff about it. I heard that at a meeting of another London council dramatic savings were proposed – but several councillors only lamented the abolition of funding for the opera. Does this make Westminster a philistine council? In fact, in numerous other ways the council funds the arts: there are art programmes for the elderly with mental health issues, huge amounts of S106 money are set aside for public art, dance and theatre for young people are encouraged, etc. Will art come to an end as a result of Westminster’s savings? All the great art institutions came about without government money. Shakespeare never took a penny from the Queen. Today, the Globe and the Royal Academy don’t take state subsidies. Private sector investment in the arts dwarfs government subsidies.
The serious savings in Westminster have been achieved through efficiency and prolonged outsourcing of most services. I find it incredible that there are so-called Conservative councils all over the land which still do everything in-house. Why not use the greater efficiency of the private sector to deliver public services? It is a complete mystery. Westminster also achieved substantial savings by merging administrative jobs with neighbouring Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea – what are other councils waiting for?
The most remarkable feat of my six years as a councillor is that, notwithstanding Westminster's sterling efforts and achievements, I still discovered spending on fluff, waste, and potential for savings at every single council and committee meeting I attended. And Westminster is a Star Council! The mind boggles as to what it’s like elsewhere. This scope for further efficiency savings makes me believe that if Westminster went for even greater efficiency and continued to focus on the essentials and dispense with the rest, we could actually cut the council tax and achieve the lowest in the land. But in Westminster, as elsewhere, the Conservatives are a broad church. A council tax freeze is a great achievement, and I am proud to be able to support it.
Personally, I will never vote for a tax rise. If Conservatives do not stop the relentless march of ever bigger government, who will? There is no excuse not to cut council tax whatsoever anywhere.